Okay full disclosure I just started reading this book and so far it’s super good and I can’t wait to finish reading it.
“Next up for auction is the honor of naming the naked mole rat recently born at the North Campbell Zoo…”
The silent room fills with intrigued murmurs, and I polish off my second glass of wine, trying to keep my expression neutral. If it’s anything like the previous items, this particular “honor” will go for an embarrassingly high amount. Paddles fly up in rapid succession, the auctioneer rattles off extravagant numbers and people have a grand old time. And that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? A wonderful early summer day spent at the annual Ensley Golf & Country Club fundraiser for some cause no one in attendance knows or cares much about.
I glance around the well-appointed dining room, taking in the faintly sunburned crowd in their linen pants and navy jackets, pearls and heels. When I’d first started at Sterling, Morgan & Haines, I’d been desperate to attend this high-profile fundraiser, and now that I’ve been given the chance, it’s taking everything I’ve got not to fidget in my seat.
“Should we bid?” My boyfriend of six weeks, Todd Varner, is the perfect date. Unlike me, he grew up in this white-collar world and doesn’t have to feign enthusiasm for the proceedings. In fact, he spent most of the morning explaining the finer points of golf, making me wonder why we’d started dating in the first place.
“Why not?” I reply. People are going crazy for this thing. Have they never seen a naked mole rat? I saw a picture once, and its hideous little face is burned into my brain. Todd squeezes my fingers, and I feel bad for doubting him. He’s an accountant at the firm, handsome, smart and good in bed. I catch him eyeing me and smile eagerly, as if I really hope we win.
He bids and I blanch at the number. “You’re having fun, right?” he asks, squinting at me. “You’re not thinking about work? On a Saturday?”
“No,” I lie, “I’m not thinking about work.” I am absolutely thinking about work. The firm is planning one of the biggest class action lawsuits in its history, and one fourth-year associate will be asked to second chair. I’d much rather be in my office, eating pad Thai and preparing my interview notes than sitting in this swanky dining room trying to win the right to name a rodent.
“Sold!” the auctioneer finally shouts, and the room explodes into applause. That’s when I realize Todd is beaming and nodding graciously—like a winner.
“That’s right,” he replies, leaning over to kiss me on the cheek as I grin dutifully. Is there a time I’ve smiled today that hasn’t been forced? I’m living the life I’d only dreamed of, the one I’d given up everything for, and I’m acting like an ungrateful jackass. I give myself a mental kick in the head and tune in to the conversation at the table.
“…such a whimsical gift,” the elderly gentleman—a retired city councilman—seated on Todd’s right is saying. “Do you have a name picked out?”
“Of course,” Todd answers, reaching for my hand. “I’m going to name it Rachel.”
My smile freezes. “Really?” I manage.
“That’s adorable,” the councilman’s wife coos. “Naked Mole Rat Rachel.”
I laugh weakly.
“You know,” Todd continues, “I actually had an unusual pet growing up.”
The councilman looks delighted. “You don’t say.”
“Yes, it was a rare cat called the Kurilian Bobtail…”
I take a guilty sip of my wine. We’re at this fundraiser because we can afford to give back. I make good money at the law firm and Todd grew up wealthy. Spending a small fortune on a name is actually something he’s done before: he’d once paid ten grand for a letter signed by Winston Churchill. And that wasn’t even the gem of his signature collection! Somehow I’d found the story charming. I’d even admired the fact that Todd had interests outside of work, and had been making a half-assed effort to achieve a better work-life balance myself.
I realize that Todd is now showing the councilman photos of his favorite signatures on his phone. It’s one step up from showing him pictures of his special cat. I pinch the bridge of my nose and take another sip of wine, but I can’t tune out Todd’s extraordinarily dull story of the time he almost bought a fake Bob Dylan signature. I’d heard it before but told myself it wasn’t as boring as I’d thought. And if Todd found it interesting, then I should be supportive. I should be interested in things other than work.
But I’m not.
I’m not interested in Todd. As kind as he is, as tall and fit and handsome as he is, he doesn’t distract me from work. Nothing does, and nothing has, for a very long time. I tell myself to keep going through the motions, that this ennui will pass, that Todd will become appealing again.
I have a good education; I’m a smart, ambitious, twenty-eight-year-old woman who knows what she wants and goes after it. When was the last time I’d even had a boyfriend? It had certainly been too long since I’d been in… Well, anyway. I’ll stick with Todd and visit this naked mole rat and look at his signatures and pretend I care about golf and…
“I guess that’s it,” Todd says, pushing back his chair and standing. He helps the elderly councilman’s wife from her seat and we say our goodbyes. “Time to go home.” He smiles at me hopefully, and I see a tiny glimpse of the man I’d found sexy six weeks ago, with his floppy dirty-blond hair and perfect white teeth. And then he picks up his sweater, ties the arms around his neck as if he’s finished a successful round of water polo and holds out his arm.
Yeah, I’m going to break up with him.
“There’s going to be a naked mole rat named after you?” Parker laughs uproariously.
“Well…not anymore.” I try but fail to hide a smile. Breaking up with Todd had been awkward, but it wasn’t without its upside.
I glance at Parker Finch, my favorite work friend, across the backseat of the company car the partners hired to schlep us out to the middle of nowhere. Parker is ten years older than me, though we’d been hired on the same day almost four years ago. He got married young and stayed home to raise his two kids while his surgeon wife worked her way up the ranks. When she was established in her career he returned to school and became an attorney, and my frequent partner in crime.
“Seriously, Rach. This place is dreadful.” He squints out the window as we approach the town of Camden, just outside the Chicago city limits, on a sunny Monday. Unfortunately, dreadful is an accurate description of the area. For better or worse, Camden is mostly lumpy swaths of concrete with the occasional dead tree tossed in to add visual interest. It’s gray and hopeless, as we have learned from our near-daily visits over the past several weeks. We’re here signing up potential clients for a class action lawsuit against a company that used a carcinogenic cleaner to degrease its machinery, knowing full well it had been outlawed years earlier. As a result, thousands of innocent families are suffering as the latent effects of the chemical unleashes its fury on the central nervous system.
“First stop,” Jose, our driver, announces, parking in front of a run-down blue house with a tilting picket fence. Parker and I exchange a look before climbing out of the car and heading up the gravel driveway. The gutter hangs at a dangerous angle from the corner, and, though it’s June, the grass is patchy and yellow. Parker holds the gutter as I duck under, climbing up chipped concrete steps to knock.
The inner door swings open instantly, as though the household is as punctual as we are. “Good morning.” A little girl, maybe four, greets us, peering up through the screen. She’s wearing pink cartoon-print pajamas and her dark hair tumbles around her shoulders.
I smile down at her. “Good morning. Is your mom home?”
She turns to holler over her shoulder. “Mama!”
If I squint into the darkness I can see the faint outline of a stooped woman hurrying toward us from a dim hallway. She wipes her hands on her apron and chastises Judy in Spanish, warning her about the dangers of opening the door to strangers.
“They’re not strangers,” Judy pouts.
“Go,” the woman orders, pointing up a narrow staircase. “To your room.”
When Judy’s out of sight the woman warily pushes open the door, her worn face and prematurely gray-streaked hair making my heart pound. I know from her file that Pilar Castillo is twenty-eight, the same age as me, but she looks at least ten years older. Deep grooves are etched on either side of her pursed lips, and crow’s-feet radiate from her dark eyes. She looks tired…and suspicious.
I sigh inwardly.
“Mrs. Castillo?” I ask, extending a hand as she cracks open the door. “I’m Rachel Moser from Sterling, Morgan & Haines. This is my coworker, Parker Finch. We have an interview this morning.”
She gives my hand a light squeeze and glances between Parker and me, sizing us up.
“We’re here about the Fowler Metals case,” I add. Her expression doesn’t change, but she knows what I’m talking about. Her husband worked the night shift for Fowler, a massive manufacturing company that produces parts for refrigerator motors. Two years ago he’d woken up one morning, unable to move his arms and legs. That night he’d died. Chronic exposure to an unnamed chemical—known then and now as perchlorodibenzene—had wreaked havoc on his nervous system, and one day his brain gave up. He was twenty-seven. And he is just one of the five hundred and eleven cases Parker and I have been assigned; less than one-eighth of the cases our firm is investigating in the class action suit against Fowler.
Pilar wants to let us in, I can see it in her guarded eyes. “We’ve already spoken to many of your neighbors,” I tell her quietly, though she knows this too. “This is just a preliminary interview. You don’t have to sign anything today or make any promises. We’d just like to talk about your husband.”
Her eyes well up with tears that she blinks away. “My English…” she says cautiously, her accent heavy. “I don’t…”
I switch to Spanish. “That’s okay,” I tell her. “Whatever you’re most comfortable with.” Before starting these trips to Camden, I hadn’t spoken Spanish in ten years, but now the words roll off my tongue easily. I’ve worked so hard to shape myself into someone better than my upbringing foretold, and it’s scary to see how easy it is to slide back into old habits. I shake my head and focus on the task at hand. The scrappy girl who grew up in a trailer park has been methodically replaced by a well-groomed, refined woman who promised to never look back, and never, ever will.
I’ve never forgotten how it felt to follow Dean—dangerous, daring, determined—away from the crowd and climb into his beat-up old Trans Am. I was sixteen and gloriously alive for the first time. When I felt his hand cover my leg and move upward, it was over. I was his. Forever.
Until I left. Him, my mom, and the trailer park. Without so much as a goodbye.
Now Dean’s back, crashing uninvited into my carefully cultivated, neat little lawyerly life. Eight years behind bars have turned him rougher and bigger—and more sexually demanding than any man I’ve ever met. I can’t deny him anything…and that just might end up costing me everything.